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Politics, Philosophy & Economics at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada 2005-06
I went on exchange over 2005-06 to a Canadian university more than twice the size of Lancaster placed just outside the centre of a large but little known capital city called Ottawa. Ottawa was apparently liked by Queen Victoria who made it the capital of Canada. Apart from being very cold and having a badminton club, the other attractions for me was thinking that Canada could be described as "America-lite" the "new world" but with a soft side. A T-shirt later informed me Canadians are "unarmed Americans, with health care", so not far off. To someone who has never been to America, there seemed to be a great deal of similarities, culturally as well as politically.
The culture is one of the top reasons for going on an exchange. Culture affects all areas of life - not just national cultures or regional cultures but academic culture and student culture. It's certainly not the case that just because Canadians by and large speak English and have pictures of the Queen on their bank notes, there is not a distinct and fascinating culture to experience. Words like "course", "professor" and "hockey" take on a new meaning. From going to North America I can now say what an American or Canadian means when they say "major". I have had a "beaver's tail" in the Byward market in Ottawa, almost managed to played ice hockey, have been to three NHL games, and much more besides. I've had the chance to see how sport is taken seriously, and inclusion in sport is done quite differently. Broad based degrees replace narrow specialised degrees. I am beginning to appreciate the potential advantages, but there are some areas that I don't understand yet. Why is it that a chemical engineering student should study philosophy of language and communication?
These are some of the wonders of going on exchange. Most people do not get to study in more than one university. Doing so allows us to put into context what our degrees really mean. In Britain academic rigor is the watch-word of many commentators and members of the public; relevance and practicality are dismissed as "wishy washy" or "Mickey mouse" degrees. At Carleton the Political Science Department and Economics Department were larger than that of our equivalents here in Lancaster; they were placed next to each other and linked through a Political Economy department. One of their focuses seemed to be public policy with a practical edge. By contrast, Lancaster's Economics department is in the centre of the Management school and the Politics Department is quite philosophical.
The different Canadian universities all seem to give their subjects their own angle and have their own approach, making interuniversity comparisons pretty weak. Britain's view of higher education (if it can be said to have one) is based on the arbitrary concept of "prestige". Carleton had exchange students from all sorts of UK universities from Leeds and Edinburgh to Bradford. It is refreshing to be able to directly experience how good "last chance U" is - it is a great university which recruits great students.
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